Los Angeles, CA
As a kid, I honed my skills in the South Riverdale Baseball League. I was no where as good as my brother, who would someday become renown as one of the best pitchers in SRBL history. Many of our games were played a couple of miles from Yankee Stadium in Van Cortlandt Park, a sprawling 30,000 acres in the Bronx that was also the location of a Revolutionary War battle.
Van Cortlandt Park also happened to be where I first saw cricket players. I immediately noticed the funny wooden bats and became entranced at the odd piece of equipment. The handle seemed the same, but the shaft of the bat looked more like a massive wooden butter knife when compared traditional scuffed aluminum bat that I had slung over my shoulder and carried everywhere.
Image: Calvin Wilson
When I inquired about cricket, my father explained that the British invented cricket but Abner Doubleday tweaked the game and invented baseball -- the same game that I loved and played as much as possible when I was ten years old.
Doubleday was a name I knew well, because of Doubleday's, a two-story pub where my parents and their friends often consumed copious amounts of spirits, especially after little league games because the pub was conveniently located across the street from the baseball diamonds in Van Cortlandt Park. My world view was rather narrow considering it was the late 1970s during those halcyon days before cable TV and the internet, so I innocently assumed that Abner Doubleday was a former owner of the pub (hence its name) and I created this back story inside my head that Abner Doubleday had to close the pub on Sundays because we were all Catholic. All the neighborhood drunks had nothing to do once church let out and without a bar to waste away in, Doubleday gathered everyone across the street in the park and taught them how to play baseball while they hid kegs in the woods. Thus, Abner double day invented baseball and the South Little League Baseball was born, and eventually, Babe Ruth built Yankee Stadium and the across the street candy story got these awesome new chocolate called Reggie Bars.
Cricket requires a significant amount of space and that's exactly what Van Cortlandt Park offered for its players. The local league was dominated by immigrants from the West Indies and the Caribbean. Many of them grew up playing cricket (but sadly their children would assimilate into American sports and ditch the cricket bat for a baseball bat). When I was a kid, I recall that their games drew impressive crowds. I later found out that some of the participants were former legends of the game from their respective island nations. Some of them had migrated to New York City to find work, but they never ditched their passion for the game. Although the league lacked any sort of international legitimacy, that didn't deter scores of cricket enthusiasts from showing up. Simply put, they were fans thrilled to see cricket in any form.
See That Googly? It's Cricket in the Bronx is a New York Times article circa 1987 that I came across through a quick search for photos of the old cricket fields. The article reminded me about a minor spat between the cricket people and local residents. The cricket games were reduced to a much smaller section of the park near the riding stables. Due to the restricted space, errant balls went into the stables and rolling onto Broadway (yes, it's the same street that's the cross roads of Times Square -- basically, if you walk 200 blocks north om Broadway, you will reach Van Cortlandt Park), the same street that separated the park from Doubleday's Pub. After a talk with one of the local barflys (an ex-cop who regularly drank with my old man), I later discovered that there was an undertone of racism at play. He told me that our neighborhood, comprised of mostly Irish and Jewish families, was predominately white and the cricket players were people of color. Whether or not that is true, is still left to be determined.
I had forgotten about cricket until 2007. I flew down to Melbourne, Australia to cover the Aussie Millions. Due to jetlag and insomnia, I often sat in my room at the Crown Casino and watched Aussie TV, which included three sports stations (in addition to ESPN) and full station devoted to cricket matches. Nonstop cricket. I sat and watched and realized I had no clue what the hell was going on.
I visited Australia twice more within that year. During each visit, I watched more and more cricket. The game slowly seeped into my brain. I had some of the lingo down pat, but the rules were a little confusing. I had yet to bet on it because I still didn't know the ins and out of a sport, but at the same time, I heard wild stories about fixing scandals in cricket. Despite the warm fuzzy memories of cricket being played in the same park where I played second base for the SRBL, as an adult I had pegged cricket as a rigged sport like Jai Alai, horse racing, and Presidential politics.
John Caldwell suggested that I talk to our colleague Gaz, who was a huge cricket supporter in Melbourne. He had season tickets and was known to knock back 25-30 beers during a single match. I never saw a match with Gaz because my tolerance is much lower these days and I'd pass out by the 12th or 13th beer, but it's definitely on my list of "Epic Sporting Feats" that I'd like to do before I die. Drink with Gaz at a proper cricket match.
My first encounter with Shane Warne occurred inside the poker room at the Crown Casino in Melbourne. I had no idea who he was other than the tow-headed guy that was hanging out with Gaz. I bullshitted with him for a few minutes. He noticed my American accent and asked me how I was enjoying Australia and I prattled off all of the beers I tried. Then he told me I should drink Victoria Bitter. We ended our conversation and I walked into the poker room. A random person stopped me and said, "What did he say?"
"Huh?" I said.
"Warnie. What did you talk about?"
"Beer," I said and wandered off.
Later that night I discovered the significance of Shane Warne. At the time, I had no fucking clue he was a pitchman for VB and that I had chatted with the greatest Australian cricket player of all time.
My British friends, usually not phased by name dropping, were uncharacteristically intrigued that I had met Shane Warne.
"Ball of the century," said my colleague Conrad from London. "Type it into YouTube."
During one of my assignments at the Crown, I was covering a tournament and I reported that Shane Warne had gotten a penalty for using his mobile phone at the table. I wrote it up and an hour later, the poker room manager said that I had a phone call. It was an AFP reporter asking me about Warne's penalty. I assumed it was a slow news day. I clarified the mobile phone rule at the poker table and elaborated on Warne's infraction.
I was a clueless sot and unaware about Warne's marriage being broken up because of a text message with his mistress. Regardless, I was still quoted in an AFP article.
Conrad and my British colleagues were impressed. As Conrad said, "(You're the) first American in the history of history to supply an authoritative quote on a cricket story."
My Aussie friends were less than congratulatory. As one succinctly put it: "This is the bloody end of the fucking world, mate!"
And that was the re-introduction of cricket in my life. When I spent time in London on various assignments, I chatted with a few poker writers and they suggested that I cover The Ashes, a historical test match between Australia and Great Britain that happens every 1.5 to 2.5 years. They've been playing the Ashes since 1882 and that is on my list of sporting events to attend. I'd also love to cover it someday as a writer, maybe even write a book about my fish-out-of-water story as I stumble through the cricket world, trying to score hash while perpetually hungover and hanging out with binge-drinking, gregarious Australian reporters and binge-drinking, reserved British beat writers.
And thus brings us to Cricket's World Cup. Australia dominated the last three World Cups and were the favorite to win this year. With March Madness, it was hard to give it my full attention, but once I found out you can bet on matches, I decided... fuck it. I bet on the Final Four matches. Sri Lanka (who upset England) took on New Zealand the other day, and as I'm writing this India is taking on Pakistan. I bet both Sri Lanka and India. I consulted my buddy Graham, who is a Kiwi living in Oz, and we swapped intel on our perspective sports. I gave him my thoughts on the March Madness Final Four and he tipped me off that this is India's year.
Some of the back stories in this year's World Cup are extraordinary. This ESPN article is a must read... Why You Should Care About Cricket. It focuses on the phenomena surrounding India's best player, Sachin Tendulkar, who is Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, the Beatles, Buddha, Picasso and George Washington all rolled into one.
It's upon Tendulkar's shoulders that 1 billion people in India are anticipating India's first World Cup in decades. Along the way, they had to upset Australia. Now, they are pitted against their rival Pakistan for a shot in the finals. Many pundits are calling this one of the biggest matches in the history of cricket. It's certainly gotten a significant amount of hype, probably because the Pakistan squad is currently tarnished by a cheating scandal after players were implicated in spot-fixing a match against England. And how serious is cricket in Pakistan? After the national team lost a tournament, the coach was rumored to have been executed.
Sweating cricket matches are even more grueling than baseball games. The World Cup matches are around eight hours long. The India-Pakistan match began at 2am PT. I crashed for the first two hours or so and woke up to watch the final six hours. I sat in the darkness of my living room, still a bit faded, and waiting until the sun finally came up before I mixed myself an eye-opening rum and orange/pineapple juice concoction. I used to joke that you weren't an alkie if you waited until noon to drink. That societal standard has been lowered to sunrise, which is as low a you can go. Despite being plagued with a short attention span, an 8-hour sporting event like cricket is a definite commitment, both physically and mentally, but due to medical breakthrough and advances in technology, 8-hour long cricket matches are conductive if you have proclivities to specific time-released pharmaceuticals.
Ah, and now it's 9am. An hour or so left in the match. India is looking good, but I'm only understanding about 65% of what's going on. I caught a rare "wicket" in real time, which as pretty cool. The match is being played on Indian soil and the majority of the fervent pro-Indian crowd are waving their flags with swirls of orange, white, and green, while bits of classical Indian-themed music pumped out on the PA with a techno backbeat to get the crowd even more riled up as they can now smell a victory.
I'm sitting on the edge of my couch in LA and secretly wishing I was sweating my bet among the 50,000 fanatics in the stands at Punjab Stadium in Chandigarh, India watching the living legend Sachin Tendulkar showing off his Teddy Baseball-esque skills.